President-elect Donald Trump, who clashed with leading Republicans throughout his campaign, faced growing tumult in his national security transition team on Monday as key members of his own party appeared to question his views and personnel choices.
Former congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a respected voice on national security thought to be a leading candidate to run the CIA, was among those pushed out of the team over the past two days, two individuals with direct knowledge said, in a series of moves that have added to the anxiety across the upper ranks of U.S. intelligence agencies.
The changes came as Trump met Tuesday with incoming Vice President Mike Pence to discuss Cabinet and top White House personnel choices. Pence last week replaced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) as head of Trump’s overall transition efforts, and Christie’s associates — who had been Trump’s link to the GOP mainstream for months — now find themselves losing influence.
[It’s not just the Cabinet: Trump’s transition team needs to find nearly 4,000 appointees]
A number of Christie allies have been told they were no longer in line for top posts, according to several people familiar with the transition, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
Also on Tuesday, perhaps the most influential Republican on national security matters, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), weighed in on Trump’s efforts to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying any efforts to “reset” relations with Russia are unacceptable.
McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman who had a difficult relationship with Trump during the campaign, issued a statement blasting Putin as “a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies and attempted to undermine America’s elections.’’
A former U.S. official with ties to the Trump team described the ousters of Rogers and others as a “bloodletting of anybody that associated in any way on the transition with Christie,” and said that the departures were engineered by two Trump loyalists who have taken control of who will get national security posts in the administration: retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Rogers had no prior significant ties to Christie but had been recruited to join the Trump team as an adviser by the New Jersey governor. At least three other Christie associates were also pushed aside, former officials said, apparently in retaliation for Christie’s role as a U.S. prosecutor in sending Kushner’s father to prison.
Rogers’ departure adds to the list of positions for which the Trump team is struggling to find suitable candidates, and came as Eliot Cohen, a leading voice of opposition to Trump among former GOP national security officials during the campaign, blasted Trump’s transition team for its treatment of perceived foes.
Now operating below Pence on the transition team, the people said, are advisers who are close to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — himself a top Trump associate known for his hardline views on immigration — and former Breitbart News head Stephen K. Bannon. Bannon’s recent appointment as chief White House strategist was denounced by advocacy groups and Democrats, who accuse him of racist, anti-Semitic and misogynist views.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday, in his first speech on the Senate floor speech since Trump’s victory, that the president-elect should retract Bannon’s appointment, calling the latter a “champion of white supremacy” whose hiring undermines Trump’s call for national unity following the election.
“By placing a champion of white supremacy a step away from the Oval Office, what message does Trump send?” Reid said.
“I say to Donald Trump, take responsibility. Rise to the dignity of the office of the president of the United States instead of hiding behind your Twitter account. ... Show America that racism, bullying and bigotry have no place in your White House.”
Inside Trump Tower in Manhattan, where the president-elect is planning his government, the shift is seen as a clear signal that Trump will govern more in line with the populist, hardline campaign he ran, the people said.
In another surprising development on Tuesday, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has been a confidant to Trump since the end of the Republican primaries, is unlikely to join the administration but will remain an informal adviser.
“The way I’m leaning is to work from the outside and not from the inside,” Carson said in an interview. “I want to have the freedom to work on many issues and not be pigeonholed into one particular area.”
Carson, who is Trump’s most high-profile African American supporter, has been under consideration for several positions in Trump’s Cabinet, including secretary of health and human services.
Adding to the uncertainty, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared to take himself out of the running for attorney general. Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney and a top Trump adviser, had been considered a leading candidate for the prestigious post.
“I won’t be attorney general,” Giuliani said Monday at a Wall Street Journal event.
Cohen, meanwhile, drew widespread attention for his tweet.
“After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming “you LOST!” Will be ugly,’’ tweeted Cohen, who served from 2007 to 2009 as counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He was a driving force behind an open letter last spring — eventually signed by 122 Republican national security leaders — who opposed Trump’s candidacy.
Cohen, who last week had urged career officials to serve in Trump’s administration, said in an interview that a longtime friend and senior transition team official had asked him to submit names of possible national security appointees. After he suggested several people, Cohen said, his friend emailed him back in terms he described as “very weird, very disturbing.”
“It was accusations that ‘you guys are trying to insinuate yourselves into the administration…all of YOU LOST.’…it became clear to me that they view jobs as lollipops, things you give out to good boys and girls,” said Cohen, who would not identify his friend.
Cohen also said the transition official was “completely dismissive” of concerns raised about Trump’s appointment of Bannon, who Trump’s advisors have strongly defended.
His friend’s email conveyed the feeling that ‘we’re so glad to see the bicoastal elites get theirs,’” added Cohen, who described the response as “unhinged.’’
Trump transition officials had no immediate comment Tuesday, but Jason Miller, a senior transition communication adviser, told reporters Monday night that Trump and Pence know the urgency of filling key positions.
“Obviously, inauguration day is not getting further away. And people need to get going. This is an absolute top priority understood by the president-elect and the vice president-elect,” Miller said.
Some political observers were also stunned to hear that Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, an adviser to Trump, was being considered as a candidate for agriculture secretary in the new administration. Miller was widely criticized for recently calling Hillary Clinton a “c–t” on Twitter. He later placed blame for the tweet on a “third-party vendor” who he said would be removed from his campaign staff.
As for the president-elect, Trump jumped back on Twitter on Tuesday morning to argue about his expected loss of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Trump was known for his incendiary tweets during the campaign, but has tweeted only sporadically since his victory.
“If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y., Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily,” Trump wrote at his personal account, @realDonaldTrump.
Six minutes later, Trump changed his tone and defended the electoral college, where his victory was secured. The system is “actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!” he wrote.
Amid the widespread uncertainty, coordination between Trump’s transition team and the Obama White House is now on hold until Trump’s team signs a key document, the Associated Press reported. The document, a memorandum of understanding smoothing interaction between the two teams, has yet to be signed by Pence, who recently replaced Christie as head of Trump’s transition planning.
White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said the Obama administration is working with Trump advisers to get the document signed.
Some of Trump’s biggest campaign fundraisers and super PAC donors were rewarded Tuesday with seats on his presidential inaugural committee, which will be headed by investor Thomas Barrack Jr., a Trump business associate who hosted the candidate’s first fundraiser in May. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam – who together gave at least $11.2 million to his campaign and allied super PACs, making them Trump’s biggest donors -- were named as finance vice-chairs.
Other major financial backers on the committee include New York financier Lew Eisenberg, who headed the Republican National Committee’s joint fundraising effort with the campaign; Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks, who gave at least $1.9 million to support Trump; and Laurie J. Perlmutter, the wife of Marvel Entertainment chief executive Isaac Perlmutter, who gave $5 million to a pro-Trump super PAC days before the election.
Other major campaign fundraisers were also give slots, including New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Dallas executive Roy Bailey, Florida lobbyist Brian Ballard, New York financier Anthony Scaramucci, Florida developer Mel Sembler, Dallas investor Ray Washburne and former RNC finance chairman Ron Weiser. Casino mogul Steve Wynn, who declined to say during the campaign which candidate he was backing, also secured a spot.
The cascading developments followed a telephone call Monday between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which they agreed that relations between their countries were “unsatisfactory” and vowed to work together to improve them, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Moscow said the two men discussed combining efforts in the fight against terrorism, talked about “a settlement for the crisis in Syria” and agreed that their aides would begin working on a face-to-face meeting between them.
Trump’s office later said that Putin had called to “offer his congratulations” and that they had discussed shared threats and challenges, “strategic economic issues” and the long-term relationship between the two nations.
The president-elect spoke admiringly of Putin during the campaign, praising him as a stronger leader than President Obama and saying the two countries should join together to fight terrorists, particularly the Islamic State in Syria.
Those views put Trump at odds with many GOP defense hawks, who are uniformly suspicious of Moscow and have denounced Russian actions in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Syria. The offer of cooperation could also immerse Trump in a deep controversy with the Pentagon, where military and civilian leaders have strongly opposed collaboration with Russia, particularly in Syria.
Protests, meanwhile, continued for a sixth straight day in major cities and on college campuses over last week’s election results, in which Trump won the electoral college but lost the popular vote to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Andrew Roth in Moscow, Jenna Johnson in New York City and Robert Costa, Elise Viebeck and Jose DelReal in Washington contributed to this report.